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COA affirms jury's rejection of insanity defense

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has sided with a jury in rejecting a man’s insanity plea, holding that even when crimes seem horrific and senseless, that does not mean the perpetrator is legally insane.

In James Fernbach v. State of Indiana, No. 69A01-1103-CR-151, James Fernbach claimed the jury erred when it found him mentally ill but guilty of two counts of Class A felony attempted murder. He contended that he should have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and that his 60-year sentence was inappropriate.

The appeals court wrote that Fernbach had a long history of mental illness and a violent past. He had been institutionalized as a teenager, and as a young man, he was arrested several times for acts of domestic violence – such as threatening his girlfriend, with whom he fathered a child, with an axe and attempting to strangle her.

In 2008, Fernbach’s family removed firearms from the household after he fired a shotgun into the woods, claiming that he was shooting at intruders. He also put nails in the home’s gutters, to prevent people from getting onto the roof.

Fernbach’s family attempted to get help for his paranoid behavior, taking him to two different emergency rooms, where he was treated for anxiety and released. His family had him involuntary committed to a hospital, and he was released after 72 hours.

In April 2009, Fernbach – armed with an illegally purchased handgun – shot two people, without provocation, at a gas station. He shot Philip Cruser in the head, leaving him with severe disabilities, and attempted to shoot another man – Benjamin Dick – in the head. Dick was able to grab Fernbach's arm, deflecting the shot, but a bullet went through his hand. Fernbach was attempting to reload his gun when Dick urged him to flee the scene and not shoot him again.

Fernbach sped off, and when he arrived at home, he told his wife he thought he killed someone by accident. But Fernbach initially told police he didn’t remember much about the shootings, and then later told police that he was defending himself against Dick, who he alleged had attacked him.

At trial, two doctors provided testimony about Fernbach’s psychiatric health that could have been favorable to the defense, but, the appeals court held, neither doctor spoke with anyone other than Fernbach, and one doctor admitted that a defendant’s statements alone are among the least reliable sources for a psychiatric examination.

The appeals court wrote that the defendant bears the burden of establishing the insanity defense by a preponderance of the evidence. Citing Indiana Criminal Code 35-41-3-6(a), the appeals court held that in order to meet this burden, the defendant must establish both that he suffers from a mental illness, and that his mental illness rendered him unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct at the time of the offense.

Although Fernbach did call the police, when questioned by the police, he asked one of the officers whether he could receive the death penalty for his crimes, indicating knowledge that his actions were criminal. His ensuing suicide attempt in jail could also be construed as indicating knowledge of the wrongfulness of his conduct, the court held.

The court also held that while Fernbach’s crimes seem to be without motive, motive is not an element in the crime of attempted murder. “In fact, our supreme court has upheld the rejection of an insanity defense in cases where the crimes appear to have been completely irrational,” the court wrote. The appeals court held that the jury did not err in finding Fernbach guilty, but mentally ill.

The appeals court held that due to the nature of Fernbach’s crimes – attacking two strangers and leaving them with lifelong disabilities – his 60-year sentence was not inappropriate.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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